Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume
11 year old Julia hasn’t seen her mother since she ran off to join the hippies. Grandmother Lancaster has just died (by noon, as she said she would, and Lancasters always keep their promises) and Julia is left with her Aunt Constance. They first must sell Windy Ridge, the only home Julia has ever known, along with its possessions. Grandmother is determined that Julia be sent to Miss Horton’s, a prestigious boarding school which “will be glad to have a Lancaster there again”. Grandmother assures them that she will be disappointed if they fail her and practical Julia reminds grandmother that if she’s dead by noon tomorrow she can’t be disappointed.
When Windy Ridge is sold “lock, stock and barrel” by Shirley Hicks, who having come into a great deal of money now goes by Tipsy von Lipp, Julia and Aunt Constance set off for unknown parts to locate Julia’s mother. Sadly missing her friend Belfry, who has great ideas of his own, Julie packs her camera (which never leaves her side, even at night), her box of photographs, treasure box and her mother’s “shiny black Mason Pearson Brush” which she hid so it wouldn’t get sold.
Each chapter is a new adventure for Julia and her Aunt Constance. Car trouble in Virginia brings them to Paw Paw, home to a gas station, restaurant, and general store which sells only the basics, including animal traps. Julia meets a girl named Jack who introduces her to frog legs, catching fish with her bare hands and making the best out of what’s right in front of you.
In New Orleans where they are certain they’re close to finding Julia’s mother, they’re guests of Prunella Foxworth, an alumna of the famous Miss Horton’s school . Aunt Constance is thrilled to find herself back in long gloves, flowered dresses and tea time. With time on her hands Julia finds everything she can about voo-doo and discovers Miss Foxworth can be really quite helpful in the search. It becomes a challenge to slip away from the socialite Miss Foxworth and search for Julia’s elusive mother.
As a writer I felt a little badly that Belfry was built up in the beginning of the book and might have been a strong character had he been allowed to “come along”. I was also (happily mistaken) that this was not a formulaic book with predictability that left the reader going through the motions. It helped sustain my interest and captivated me as the two become closer and have adventures moving across the country. The author drops enough subtle hints that the reader has an idea there will be a most satisfying surprise ending to this charming mid-grade novel.